The right choice

  • 4th April 2024

Paul Sypko outlines how to achieve effective procurement of information communications technology software in schools

Schools, in common with other organisations, depend on good information and streamlined workflows in order to carry out their work effectively and to help staff make better decisions. In the drive for more efficiency and effectiveness, good technology can bring huge benefits – but also huge risks. Finding the right software solutions – and the right suppliers – for your school can be a challenge. However, with the right approach to technology procurement, you can avoid the pitfalls and make sure you get the most from your investment.

 It’s not really about the software

The key to successful software selection is to realise that the software itself – what it can do and how it works – is often less important than the choice of supplier (or ‘implementation partner’). Of course, functionality, performance, ease of use and many other technical considerations are important and you will need to take them all into account. You also need a strong governance framework and a business case that articulates the expected benefits. However, in the end it will be the quality of your relationship with your supplier that will determine the success – or failure – of the implementation. A good supplier can make a poor system work for you, but even the best software will be ineffective if your supplier doesn’t understand you or your requirements.

In fact, software selection should be seen not so much as a conventional exercise in procurement but as a test of a supplier’s approach and ability to work effectively with your school. It’s more like a collaborative partnership than an arms-length, transactional purchase of goods and services – and the level and style of due diligence needs to reflect that.

 A more adaptive approach

Particularly when it comes to large software solutions, like a school Management Information System (MIS), the hard reality is that many of these projects fail to deliver the required benefits. This isn’t because suppliers are malevolent or go out of business during implementation or because the software doesn’t actually work, the real risks are that the supplier you choose doesn’t understand or value your business, or that the way it works doesn’t fit with your organisational culture. So, how do you avoid those risks in your software selection?

The answer is to find ways to bring your potential suppliers as close to you as possible – the opposite of most procurement processes, which keep suppliers at arm’s length. You need to invite the suppliers you’re really interested in to spend more time with you, talking about what you are trying to do, so that they can understand your requirements and so that you can get a sense of what it might be like to work with them.

Try to resist the temptation to outline all your functional requirements at the outset. Experience shows that what you will really need from a new system – whether a school MIS, finance system or any other type of IT solution – tends to become clearer once you’ve learnt more about it (or, indeed, have started to see it taking shape during an implementation). Most suppliers today welcome an invitation to understand more about your objectives, the challenges you are seeking to solve, and the improvements you want – but they can only do that by engaging with you properly up front. By moving from asking suppliers to respond to prescriptively-written requirements specifications, to engaging them in meaningful solutions-focused dialogue, and by focusing on the ‘what” rather than the ‘how’ in any brief you give to them, both you and the supplier will get more from the process.

A structured evaluation process, with clarity around your objectives/high-level needs and budget, and sufficient rigour when it comes to matters such as due diligence and obtaining written proposals remain important, of course, We’re not advocating here for ‘doing everything verbally’ or letting the sales people take control of the process, but moving more towards an approach where a long-list of potential solutions is whittled down quickly through a process of a ‘light-touch’ brief which focuses on your challenges and aspirations, with early two-way dialogue with suppliers about their potential fit, This enables more effective use of both your time and the supplier’s, The supplier gets to spend less time responding to lengthy tenders or briefs that it’s unlikely to win, and you more quickly ‘get to the point’ with the suppliers that really are likely to be a good fit.

The process can still comply with any procurement rules you might have – it’s still perfectly compatible with obtaining ‘three written quotes’ or suchlike. However, by shifting where you focus your time and efforts during the procurement process, you give yourself the option of spending more time on deeper conversations with the ones that are likely to be the better fit. Our experience is that suppliers prefer this approach, too. It gives them the opportunity to differentiate themselves by showing the value they can bring, over and above what you might otherwise ask for. It enables them to bring their own ideas and solutions, giving you a feel for how they really tend to work in practice (rather than mere confirmation that – on paper, at least – they’re able to satisfy a prescriptive set of requirements); and they get to spend more of their time showing you what the solution would really look like for your school in practice, so that you and they both know whether it’s likely to be a good fit, before they invest considerable amounts of time in writing a detailed proposal or tender response.

Making it real

Depending on the likely contract value, you can often persuade prospective suppliers to demonstrate their systems based on your own business processes or desired ways of working. This is a great idea – generic demos are often helpful, but nothing engages users and ‘brings a system to life’ quite like seeing it used to do exactly what you will in due course want it to do. This type of activity needn’t be complex or time-consuming, though it will involve the suppliers – and you – in a bit more effort than a conventional demonstration.

These seven simple steps can lead to a successful software selection:

  • Set up an appropriate governance framework. Software selection is a project and you need an appropriate framework to manage it. Make sure you involve the right people – a common reason for software projects failing is that assumptions are made about what people need or want, and they fail adequately to engage the people who will later have a say in whether it’s been successful or not. Engaging users in the procurement process is as much about change management and securing their engagement and commitment to what follows, as it is about assessing options.
  • Establish the rationale. You need to be clear about the business benefits of the proposed investment.
  • Identify the key business processes to be supported and confirm the scope. The main purpose of any new system is to support your business processes, so it’s crucial to be able to define those.
  • Prepare an outline brief and invite a long-list of potential suppliers to say how their software might support those processes and what that might cost. Rather than keeping them at arm’s length, invite them to discuss your objectives and even show you, generically, the software – albeit with the understanding that they’ll still need to give a short written response to your brief.
  • Based on the information gathered during the previous stages, shortlist the suppliers down to, say, just two. Invite them to come and present to you; ask them to show you how the software could work in your particular school and how it would help you to achieve your objectives. Structured demonstrations, based on your own specific documented processes, can be hugely helpful with this. Invite them to come in and ask questions as they prepare for the demonstrations; encourage users to spend as much time with the suppliers as possible so that you can check how well you work with them.
  • Take up references and carry out due diligence.
  • Finalise your choice and – at that point – sit down with the preferred supplier to agree your detailed requirements and the associated contract.

This more adaptive approach certainly involves more time and effort – but is worth it in the end.


Paul Sypko is a partner at business management firm Adapta Consulting.

Paul Sypko

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